The Secretive Source Of Cash Police Unions Use To Block Reform

July 31, 2020

PAR investigates how police unions use taxpayer dollars to defend brutal police officers and block legislative change. We speak with a New York commuter who was arrested as a "violent" protester for stopping her bicycle to film the police.

PAR investigates how police unions use taxpayer dollars to defend brutal police officers and block legislative change. We speak with a New York commuter who was arrested as a "violent" protester for stopping her bicycle to film the police.


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always say at the beginning of the show, this program has a single purpose, holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. But to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the underlying system that makes American law enforcement nearly immune to reform. And today we’re going to do so by focusing on one of the key players in the political power structure that shields police from oversight. I’m talking about police unions. The organizations that are supposed to bolster workers’ rights, but in some cases have turned into a roadblock to change and reform that you are paying for. Then we’re going to talk to a New Yorker who was arrested on her way to work and what her police officer father had to say about it and what her experience says about our addiction to arrest and what that says about American policing in general.

But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at [email protected] and we might be able to investigate. And please like, share and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. And of course you can message me directly at Tayas Baltimore on Facebook or Twitter.

Okay. Now we’ve got that out of the way. Now, as we’ve always tried to communicate on this show, we’re not just producing it just to broadcast videos of cops behaving badly. That’s because when you see an officer breaking the law or violating someone’s rights, it’s usually the final act of a long chain of causality that makes bad behavior possible. And it’s important to understand the system and how it works to provide context on police brutality and what can be done to change it.

And key to understanding that system is a concept we’ve discussed on the show before, the political economy. The link between the politics and money that reinforces and bolsters bad actions and bad policing. It’s a relationship that provides a critical link in the chain of oppression in a country that uses law enforcement as a key enforcer of income inequality. And a critical player in the afore-mentioned political economy are organizations that are receiving more scrutiny as calls for reform of law enforcement have grown louder, police unions. As I’m sure you’ve heard since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, unions which represent officers are often the principal obstacle to reform. Organizations that combine the access to public resources unique to policing with the political currency that comes with the power of the badge. In fact, concern over the role of police unions in blocking reform in part led to a vote by the Martin Luther King County Labor Council in Seattle to expel the Officer’s Guild, an organization that represents roughly 1300 police officers from the AFL-CIO affiliated council.

But of course, as we always say on PAR, it’s better to show than tell. And today we’re going to show how one facet of unique power police unions works and how you pay for it. Let’s remember it was last year we literally witnessed how police unions watered down a bill that was supposed to provide greater transparency and accountability for families of victims of police brutality in our state capitol of Annapolis. The idea was that when someone died in police custody, the officer’s internal disciplinary record would be automatically made public. But union officials were having none of it. And our cameras were there when several of them literally dictated the parameters of the bill, essentially watering down the legislation to limit a law which would allow civilians to purchase transcripts. That’s right, transcripts of internal review board hearings. Let’s watch.

Speaker 2: Number four says after final actions taken by the head of the labor enforcement agency, the funding shall be provided to the public. Do you have any problem with that?

Speaker 3: No problem with that.

Speaker 2: Okay.

Taya Graham: But wait, that’s not all. Because often when we’re working in places like our state capitol in Annapolis, we come across police union officials who are lobbying to block bills who have an unusual working arrangement. And to discuss this and talk more about it, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thank you so much for having me.

Taya Graham: Stephen, you’re standing in front of a building that has generated some controversy recently, but it’s also symbol of the power we’re talking about. What just happened there and what is it?

Stephen Janis: This is ground zero police power and some of the problems that we talk about with police unions. This is the union headquarters, which by the way, has a bar inside with a 24 hour beer tap. But anyway, what happened over the weekend was that protestors came and started tagging it, in other words, putting graffiti on it. And I guess it upset the police and it became a major story. All they were tagging was defund the police, et cetera. But of course it caused so much controversy that the place has been locked down and people can’t get inside. But nevertheless, this is what’s happened.

Taya Graham: But Stephen, you also did some research and learned a little known fact about police unions and how they are bolstered by taxpayer money. What did you learn?

Stephen Janis: Well, it’s amazing. On top of the fact that police unions are obstructionists, the chief obstructor being the president of the police union is paid for by the city taxpayers. In other words, when a police FOP president is elected, he is then detailed to here where he works pretty much full time, but he’s getting paid by the police department funded by the taxpayer. This has been a tradition in Baltimore. And while you’re sitting there in Annapolis or in any state capitol watching the chief of the police union obstruct laws for reform, just bear in mind, he’s getting paid for by the taxpayers who are trying to achieve that reform. So the people that are paying for his obstruction are you and me. It’s an incredible system. And it shows, exposes how powerful the political economy of policing is.

Taya Graham: Now is this phenomenon something that only happens in Baltimore or is it happening in other police unions across the country?

Stephen Janis: I mean, if you look at the records in other cities like in Minneapolis and Chicago and Los Angeles and New York, all the heads of police unions are paid by the police department as well. We don’t follow them around every minute of every hour and know exactly what they’re doing every second. But we know these people are constantly engaging in obstructionism. We know they’re the ones that come out in support when an officer does something horrible. They’re the first people to say, hey, wait, it’s not so bad. Especially in Minneapolis where the police union there spoke out in favor of three of the four officers charged with the death of George Floyd. But they all are getting paid by the police department. They’re all getting paid by taxpayers to obstruct legislation, to obstruct reform and asking for more money for policing and are completely in the way of any defund the police movement. So it is something that is quite concerning, but shows again, the political economy that informs and empowers policing.

Taya Graham: It’s interesting to note that police unions are generally awash in taxpayer cash. A largess that has an unseen effect on the adjudication of police brutality cases and the overarching goal of holding police accountable. Well, how do we know this? Well, look at the recent not guilty pleas of four police officers charged in the death of George Floyd. The officer’s face a daunting path to acquittal. All of Floyd’s death was caught in this video. And all the officers took part in restraining Floyd’s body in a dangerous downward position that the Hennepin County medical examiner determined was positional asphyxiation and thus a homicide. But as we’ve seen in cases like this across the country, the police fight on. And not just because juries are often sympathetic to police officers, but for a lesser known reason. And that’s because police unions are usually footing the bill for legal costs. Think about it.

Across the country, officers rarely plead guilty. Charges that would prompt regular citizens to cop a plea often lead to lengthy trials and a pricey defense. Take the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody here in Baltimore. Despite the fact they did not seatbelt Gray in the van, as required by law and Gray subsequently broke his neck in the back of the van, which the medical examiner determined was a homicide, all six officers pled not guilty and all were represented by lawyers paid for by the unions. And all six were eventually acquitted. So as you can see, a police union is quite a different animal than your regular workers shop. It has access to vast sums of money and the political power that comes with it in part because many cities where they operate, law enforcement is simply the biggest business in town. And one town that has the largest police industry in the country is the home of my next guest, New York City.

The New York police department has over 55,000 sworn officers and its annual budget of $5 billion exceeds the entire discretionary spending of cities across the country. The video you’re seeing now gives us some insight into how this massive law enforcement agency operates. It also shows how an innocent bystander was swept up into a massive dragnet on the Brooklyn Bridge, an arrest that raises serious questions about how much police are instigating violence during protests, not preventing it. To discuss what happened on the bridge that day and the broader implications about police tactics during the uprising, I’m joined by the woman who filmed the mayhem and was arrested herself. Her name is Tina Spisak and she’s an aspiring lawyer who was simply commuting to work on the day the arrest occurred. Tina, thank you for joining us.

Tina Spisak: Nice to meet you Taya.

Taya Graham: So tell me, what were you doing before you were apprehended? Weren’t you just trying to get to work?

Tina Spisak: So actually I had been on my way to work. I’ve been biking in a couple of days during the week. And once I saw the commotion and arrests being made on the bridge, I stopped to record what was going on. First, closer to the Brooklyn side. And then once things seemed to come to a close, kind of at that end, I moved with the protesters to the other side and again, began recording another arrest of one person. And after that point even had I wanted to move on and go to work, I could not because officers had blocked the exit to the bridge.

Taya Graham: So what did they say to you? Why did they say they were detaining you?

Tina Spisak: I was detained. I remained on the bridge for a little while. Officers indicated to myself, the other protesters caught on the other side of their line and other commuters that we would be able to pass, we just needed to kind of wait it out. And all of us indicated that would not be a problem. We were happy to wait. We were in no rush. And then officers began making arrests of folks who were complying with their order to stay on the other side of the line. And they grabbed one bunch of people and kind of secured them. And then around five minutes later, they started grabbing two people who were extremely close to me and I continued recording the events. At this point, I was recording live on Instagram. And when I asked why one woman was being arrested, two officers began to arrest me.

So I was put in zip ties. I asked numerous times why I was being arrested. Officers eventually answered that it was because I had refused to comply with an order to disperse. And as some of the video I shared with you guys indicates, such an order was never given. I waited on the bridge for maybe like an hour or so. I wasn’t really aware of the time, in the heat with numerous other protestors who were arrested during that time. It was extremely hot that day. And this one woman in particular, who was next to me, among other protestors, continually requested water. Officers told them we would get it when we got to the precinct. But people who were walking by pulled out their water bottles and were like, hey, we’ll pour water into their mouths. And officers were like, no, we’re not going to allow you to do that.

Taya Graham: So you, a commuter, were considered part of a violent group and you were charged with disorderly conduct. Are you concerned this will be on your record or affect your career?

Tina Spisak: So it’s actually kind of funny because as I mentioned, and as helped me in this situation, my dad was a cop. I work at an attorney’s office, a criminal appeals defense office, and I’m starting law school in the fall at NYU. So I mean, the only thing that really worried me was what reporting obligations I would have to my law school and how an arrest might impact my legal career at some point. Because I know in some states it can be a major issue. I’ve reached out to a couple of lawyers in my office who I work with and I know some of them have said, oh, it’ll probably just be dismissed when you go for your court date, which isn’t until October. So I don’t know what’s going to happen in the interim period.

Others are saying the DA is not prosecuting, but I don’t know how true that’s going to be of the situation just given the amount of negative press that has surrounded the events that took place on the bridge on Wednesday. So I was definitely extremely a little freaked out when it first happened. But I certainly think that myself, as well as the other 37 folks on the bridge, there was absolutely no reason for us to be arrested. I think police were just upset that one of their own was injured by one person and that we were espousing a message that they didn’t agree with. And they used that as a pretext to lock us up for as long as possible, because they can.

Taya Graham: It seems that you support the peaceful protesters. Has this experience in any way changed the way you think about police and law enforcement in America? Or has this confirmed anything for you?

Tina Spisak: I mean, I’ve been interning or working in the criminal defense system for awhile. So I’ve kind of been aware that stuff like this happens and that wrongful arrests are pretty prevalent. And heard from clients about extreme abuses of police power. But for me to see it as close as I saw it, happening to myself and the other folks I was arrested with, and just the utter disregard for our humanity and personhood and the lack of concern for informing us what was going on in the process. Because even in my head, I had this picture of, okay, you get arrested, they’re going to tell you, okay, we’re like booking you now, it’s going to be like an hour or so, this is what’s going to happen to you. So I think I even still had a rosy view of policing and the way that an arrest happens and this has really opened my eyes to that’s not at all how our system operates. Though it really should.

Taya Graham: I think it’s clear from Tina’s story that, as we’ve said before on the show, the arrest has become a commonplace tool in the toolbox of neoliberal oppression that needs to be looked at more seriously. And combined with our previous discussion of the power police unions, another troubling aspect of the ability of law enforcement to occupy and influence, both the space to protest and the political process. Remember, police arrest 10.5 million people per year according to the Vera Institute. It is no longer a last resort to corral the most violent criminals. Instead it has become a weapon of social suppression for inequality warriors to extend the psychological conditioning of social control. Make no mistake, any free society with any modicum of respect for civic agency would not tolerate arrests with such impunity. And any society which truly understands the trauma and terror that arrest inflicted upon the people who experience it, would understand why it should and must be used sparingly at best, but not here and not for us.

Instead, as we’ve said before, this country is addicted to arrest. And unlike truly totalitarian governments, which wield it in a dictatorial fashion, our vestige of democracy has created a much more insidious conditioning for its widespread deployment. Instead of brute force, we’ve come to accept mass arrest due to a coordinated symbolic attack on our own sense of agency. I’m talking not just about previously highlighted unions who are paid to lobby against reforms by the taxpayers. I’m also referring to the endless barrage of cop shows depicting the police as guardians of the tenuous line between the poor and disenfranchised and civil society. The hollow us against them narrative that makes uncontained power to arrest a virtue. But of course, as the coronavirus has proven, just the opposite is true. All the militarized police, the endlessly expansive prison industrial complex, the courts, the cops, the judges and the plain clothes drug units haven’t done a damn thing to make us safer or healthier.

All the SWAT teams and drug sniffing dogs and license plate recognition technology haven’t brought us peace, prosperity or health as we fight a virus that other countries have subsumed, while we continue to suffer with it. Our addiction to arrest has instead atomized us. It has consigned us to the fate of containment and complicity, cages and conspiracy. It vanquishes our democratic spirit and otherwise condemns our sense of restorative justice and communal cooperation to the purview of handcuffs and zip ties. We are not a free state, so to speak, but a carceral commune welded together by the exigencies of fascism and fear. Case in point is the video you’re seeing right now.

It’s of a Baltimore police officer pointing a gun at a detainee during an arrest. The officer was signaling, according to activists, to the gathering crowd that he would shoot the man now under arrest if the group of citizens deigned to show displeasure or refuse to back away. But that’s not the end of the story because the officer wielding the gun was part of a controversial police killing that still resonates today.

The victim’s name was Tyrone West and he was pulled over in 2013 after making a u-turn in a North Baltimore neighborhood. Police, including the officer in the video, beat West for 45 minutes and he died shortly thereafter. The medical examiner ruled his death an accident due to dehydration. But his sister, Tawanda Jones, said his death was a homicide caused by positional asphyxiation when an officer sat on West’s back, a point she made during a gathering on the seventh anniversary of his death, which we attended.

In a sense, Tyrone West’s death, and the cops action on the video provides us with a complete and fulsome symbol of the choke hold American policing has on the civic life of this country. The proverbial gun pointed at our collective heads if we dissent or disagree. The sword of Damocles poised in the air that keeps us at bay as income inequality and injustice swallow us whole. It’s a fitting symbol of the lack of accountability we discussed at the beginning of the show. An officer, who despite the facts surrounding West’s death, was not even subject to internal discipline. Instead, the union fought on his behalf and thus circumvented the system of accountability that we agree is all so sorely needed. But I’m going to give the last word on the subject to Tawanda herself, a woman that has protested over her brother’s death every Wednesday for the past seven years. An activist whose fight for justice for her brother has captured not just the imagination of our city, but has sparked a movement towards reform that has had a lasting impact here in Baltimore and beyond. Let’s listen.

Tawanda Jones: 365 weeks. Nonstop, no progress, none whatsoever. It is utterly ridiculous.

Taya Graham: I would like to thank my guest Tina Spisak for her time and her courage in coming forward today. Thank you, Tina.

Tina Spisak: Thank you so so much for having me. I really appreciate having a forum to share this story with folks and I really appreciate that you guys are giving a voice to other people’s experience on the bridge.

Taya Graham: I would also like to thank intrepid reporter Stephen Janis for his investigative work writing and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thank you so much for having me.

Taya Graham: And of course I would be remiss if I did not thank friend of the show Nollie D. Thanks, Nollie D. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at [email protected] and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at Eyes on Police on Twitter. And of course you can message me directly at Tayas Baltimore on Facebook or Twitter. And please like and comment, you know I read your comments, appreciate them. And I try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.